The sun was setting on our first safari drive; dusk was changing to darkness quickly and the warm evening was turning into a chilly night. We hadn’t seen any big cats, but we had basically seen everything else – hippos yawning boisterously, elephants mock-charging our vehicle, even a monitor lizard skulking in the murky shadows – so we were happy to head back to camp. But then our guide received the call, and after confirming this and that in ranger-code, we were told that we are not going home, we are going to look for lions…in the dark.
We saw them up on the horizon first, when the sky was still dark navy, right before it would go black. And even from far away, they were so big that we made out their black silhouettes against the blue. And then those two pairs of red eyes glinting in the distance when our red spotlights pass over them. They moved slowly down towards the vehicles, with heavy intention; we watched and held our breaths and saw flashes of eyes as they moved right in between our car and the one behind us. Then they reclined slowly right next to us in our pool of red light; two male lions yawning wide and rolling over once or twice before getting up and moving along.
We drove back to the lodge with our jaws hanging open. We have seen lions on game drives before – dozing off or lazing around in the afternoons – but to see them prowl like that at night, to see them moving from the dark wilderness over there to the bushes and bristles right beside your feet, is a whole new way of seeing.
Something is going seriously right in your life when the first coffee of your day is out in the South African bush, with elephants, rhinos and countless impala grazing all around you. Especially when you follow that cup of coffee with some face-to-face encounters with herds of elephants and buffalo. And maybe the true mark of an immersive experience is that none of us have photos of these encounters. Because when an elephant walks right up to you, you stay very still, and when he turns his head to look into your eyes, all you can do is be captivated by his gaze.
And there is little left to say after a lion looks you right in the soul as he passes by, so close he may as well have rubbed his scent off your leg.
Nambiti Reserve & Ndaka Safari Lodge
Nambiti Reserve is private game park in eastern South Africa, just a few hours’ drive from Durban, and it is the perfect place for safari getaway, especially if you are only going for weekend. It is small enough so that you are pretty much guaranteed to see something besides antelope, but big enough so that you may drive for a long time without seeing anything (besides impala, of course…everyone’s favourite). But even besides the game, even if you go out on a drive and don’t see anything, it is still the perfect place for a safari getaway because of the incredible lodges on site – like Ndaka Safari Lodge, where we spent our 5-year-anniversary weekend.
Ndaka made our 2017 favourites list as my favourite hotel of the year, but it easily takes the cake for my favourite accommodation ever. Think waking up from your post-game-drive, mid-morning nap to towering giraffe striding across your ‘front yard’, or soaking in a bath tub (or outdoor shower) with views of grazing zebra and wildebeest. And they don’t only take care of you at the lodge either. The vehicles are all equipped with cozy blankets and protective raincoats, and sometimes my favourite part of the drive was when our guide Ngcebo parked the car in front of a waterfall, or at a dam, or on the hilltops overlooking the lush valleys when we would watch the sun rise or set in that silence you only get in the wild bush – with the drink of your choice in your hand.
I mean, is there anything better than watching the sun set behind what seems like the end of the world with some wildebeest teetering on the edge of it, WITH a glass of South African wine?
A BUCKET LIST EXPERIENCE
And during our penultimate drive we had one of the most magical experiences. It happened right around dusk. The sky was pink and on the horizon, far out over some valleys and hilltops, darker clouds were flashing with lightning every now and then, while the wind started to whip around us. And there they were again – those two incredible male lions. And once again, we held our breaths with every muscle they moved. They were looking into the distance, the wind whipping their manes around, and their eyes were fixed on a herd of impala down the hill. And as the wind rushed and the lightning lit up, it was like these lions were all that mattered. We were all – human and antelope – reacting to their presence.
They set off running towards the impala, but the latter scattered like feathers in the wind – light and easy, and then they were gone. We had to leave soon after as dusk was becoming darkness again, but we will never forget those lions in the wind against the lightning-pink sky.